The politics of extinction

Out here in the Waitakere ranges we’re suffering from a natural disaster. The ground didn’t rise up. We haven’t been flooded. It’s not a fire. Our natural disaster is silent and invisible, a microscopic bug – phytophthora agathidicida – which kills Kauri, the apex of forestry ecosystems in the north of New Zealand.

Kauri Dieback.jpg

Photo from Keep Kauri Standing, which appears to be part of the Ministry for Primary Industries.

Once the bug gets into a tree, there is no known cure. Some trees seem to be better at defending themselves than others, but it seems that if a tree cops an infection, its days are numbered. Scientists have been experimenting with sulphite solutions, which may have some ability to improve trees’ defences. But it’s not a cure.

The bug can also survive in dry soil for up to six years. Anything travelling over the soil with the bug in it is likely to pick it up and distribute it. Once the bug comes in contact with water, it can work its way towards kauri roots where it takes hold, multiplies and kills off its host mainly by drawing away nutrients. First it attacks the roots and then it works its way up the tree. More detail on the bug’s life cycle here.

So, human feet are the main distribution vectors, along with pigs’ feet, horses’ feet and bicycle wheels. Hunters are bad because they go both on and off tracks. But they’re also good because they take out pigs, which – like hunters – go everywhere. How many hunters assiduously clean all gear which comes into contact with the ground before departing the hunting ground? A few. More probably do partial cleans, which are about as effective as not cleaning at all: a single pin rick sized piece of infected dirt is enough.

By far the largest proportion of infected trees are on or very near walking tracks. That’s why the iwi Te Kawerau a Maki imposed a rahui on the Waitakere Ranges, where the disease is most prominent, by far.

Auckland Council recently voted down a proposal to follow Kawerau a Maki’s lead and close down the walking tracks. They cited logistical reasons (“too complex, difficult and unenforceable” said Penny Hulse), which seems rather pathetic on the face of it.  Instead, Council has been erecting keep-out signs at the front of high risk, high usage tracks. They’ve also been smothering infected areas with gravel.

But plenty of tracks remain open, such as the short, easy, and very popular Arataki Nature Trail, where the disease is rampant. If nothing else, you’d think a few signs (or “interpretation”, as the museological sector calls it) around the infected trees would be useful.

The trouble with leaving those tracks open is that it exposes the trees to further contamination, and – worse – hikers are still likely to pick up and distribute the bug.

In one way, Council has made things worse. It’s not just that they’ve failed to remove the number one cause of the problem (people). It’s also that people assume that if there’s no sign, then there’s no rahui. In some cases, this is benign opportunism. But often, it’s good old fashioned racism.

Some people are complaining that Te Kawerau a Maki has neither the power nor the authority to control where people do or don’t walk. That’s only valid if you firstly: dismiss any respect for the notion of mana whenua, and secondly: put that disrespect ahead of your concern for the kauri trees. In other words, you have to be racist first, and anti-environment second. And here’s me thinking the only people outwardly opposed to the environment were in the White House. Apparently not.

People are also asking: how long is this rahui thingy going to last? That’s a reasonable question. But, since the only plan seems to be to isolate the infected areas and then do everything possible to minimise the impact within those areas, it’s hard to see a short term solution. The bug remains dormant in dry soil for up to six years. So I guess that’s one time frame: assuming we can keep the infected areas dry for six years. Sounds like a bit of a mission.

You know those moments when you worry about the state of the world for our children and grand children? This is that moment. You’re unlikely to live long enough to see the benefits of your actions. Alternatively, you can regard it as an opportunity for generational theft. Keep walking in the Waitakere ranges, and you may well see the total eradication of kauri there, and possibly beyond. Part of the trouble is a tree can be infected for years before the disease is even visible.

There are other opportunities out west. Here’s a list. You’re much better off in the surf at Piha or Karekare. Or you can traverse the otherworldly deserts of Whatipu, or the lakes at Te Henga.

Or you could take your dog for a sprint at Kakamatua. There, your pooch will be scrabbling over the very same beach on which the people of Te Kawerau landed, having crossed the Manukau from Awhitu, after long exile in the Waikato. That exile resulted from musket-armed invasions from northern iwi in the early 19th century. Today, they’re fighting for the very same trees that were already mature and looking down on them when they landed that day in 1835. It’s easy to speculate they felt they’d come to the end of something bad, and the start of something good. If only they knew.

But still, standing there, you can congratulate yourself and your dog for being part of the solution, and you can imagine someone growing up 200 hundred years from now, gazing in wonderment at a forest of healthy kauri. Or not.

PS: Here’s one for those who don’t think in 280 characters.

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Makin’ Wookie

Say you lived in a household amongst whom the last full viewing of a Star Wars movie was somewhere in the 1980s. Imagine also, within this culturally retarded environment, a moment of parental carelessness, resulting in the accidental, partial screening of Phantom Menace, and the resulting blanket rejection of the entire franchise across key target demographics.

From Star Roars, Mad Magazine, 1977. Written by Larry Siegel and Dick Debartolo, drawn by Harry North.

Lastly, within this barren, isolated landscape, picture the tender, green shoots of curiosity – germinating in the swampy midst of the younger populations – for The Last Jedi.
This is a delicate and sublime moment, when the force awakens in the darkest and remotest recesses of the empire. And yet, precisely because of the chronically malnourished environment, this moment presents itself with complex needs.
Does we rush to the nearest cinema, light sabres blazing, and pick up where the rebel alliance left off? Or do we subject ourselves to discipline and training, immersing ourselves first in the histories of legend? Both have risks. With something like 16 hours of screen time to catch up on, we fear that the first option may be too much for the young initiate, who may be overwhelmed by the labyrinthine narrative of false alliances, swapped identities and oedipal complexes.
On the other hand, sitting through all that just to catch up? Good grief. The force would buckle under the sheer weight of the task, before it even tasted battle. Besides, it won’t leave her any the clearer: the backstory barely stands on its own two feet, even if we skip the entire first reboot trilogy.
And, if we were to attempt the entire series, where exactly ought one to start? Is it best viewed in the order in which it was first produced, or in the diegetic order of the narrative?
I mean, we could always just go see the movie. But I don’t know if we’re going to get another shot at this. If we get it wrong, we may be forever marooned on Tatooine: the worst second act of all time.
Tatooine haunts the entire franchise, much as the two term Lange government haunts the Labour Party. Every time the franchise gets another outing, it’s there in the background, like a shipwreck, a warning to everyone that the forces of darkness could emerge at any time.
It’s a big risk. In the words of Robert McKee “Why the fuck should I waste my two precious hours on your movie?”

Bikes, trams and Freddy Mercury.

18 cyclists have died on New Zealand roads this year, more than three times last year.  And the Herald is asking people for close call stories. Here’s my top three.

Freddy Mercury in a Jap Import

I’m cycling home on Great North Rd, just past Spaghetti Western, at rush hour. It’s not gridlock: four lanes are moving fast. Honk! A close-by horn startles me. A dude in a small Japanese sports car overtakes me, flips me the bird, then stops in a queue at the lights as I pass him and leave him behind.

Couple hundred metres later, same thing happens. Honk! Dude’s got an attitude problem. Then it happens again. Honk! This time, he overtakes me and stops on the broken yellow line leading up to the lights at Avondale race track. His car door opens, and he gets out. I think: what the fuck?
I see him stand apart from his car, legs spread, holding his door wiiide open like a man-machine gate, blocking the entire lane as he looks back towards me, fast approaching and leading the oncoming traffic. Behind him, the lights turn green. Surrounded by cars swerving to miss him, and me, I take to the inside lane and – for the last time – I truly leave him far, far behind.
In the midst of the chaos, I manage to catch a glimpse. He’s partly ripped, partly flab, in tight denim shorts and a wife beater T. He’s got aviator sunnies, terrible skin and a Freddy Mercury ‘tache. He’s retreating back into his stinking metallic shell, fag in mouth and foul thoughts in mind. Whatever he’s on, I really don’t want it.

Look to the left

So many of these. This one’s on Hillsborough Road: a winding, undulating affair overlooking the Manukau. Again, plenty of traffic. I’m casually zooming downhill when a young woman in an old hatchback makes a left turn, at the very same moment that she’s trying to pass me. In other words, she’s attempting to turn through me, like I’m simply not there.
I lock up my back brake. I yell: “Oi!” Nothing happens. It’s a well sealed road, but – non cyclists may be surprised – there’s just enough fine gravel around the gutter to prevent me stopping, and keep me skidding. “Oi!” I repeat. She’s calm as a cucumber, but I know she’s seen me. For a thousand microseconds it’s just me and her, wheels in lockstep, heading for oblivion as my space between her car and the curb gets smaller, smaller, sma-
I consider smashing my fist against her window but this is no time for histrionics: death is upon us. I just make the turn into the same road she’s aiming for, bring my bike to a stop, and watch her drive off into the distance, before remounting and going back to my oh-so-pleasant commute. She was a young Asian woman with steel rim glasses, a crucifix round her neck and rusted barbed wire coursing through her veins. At least Freddy was clear about his intentions; but this calmly grinning bitch is the ice queen.

Kids on trams

Riding to work past Western Springs Park, I find no room for cyclists between the cars and the plastic road works barriers, so I hop onto the footpath. Up ahead, I see a crown of hi-vis guys on the footpath, so I cut across a metre of grass and get onto the concrete tram line. I have to adjust my speed to allow for the odd pedestrian here and there, but on the whole it feels good.
Coming towards me, a young school girl rides a bike, with one hand on the handle bars, the other holding the hand of her brother. Brother is on a skateboard, and she’s towing him. The pair of them have just enough control at the speed of a casual stroll to stay between the inset grooves of the tramlines: nothing more. They’re everywhere, and they’re coming straight at me.
I smile. I chirp “keep left!” as cheerfully as I can. “keep le-” I manage to traverse the steel tracks, at a dangerously acute angle. Now I’m wobbling on a few inches of concrete on the outside of the track. My front wheel drops off the hard ledge. It’s only about two inches down into the grass, but it’s enough to catch me off balance. the front wheel goes perpendicular to its trajectory, and the bike and I land in a painful, splattered heap on the concrete.
The road workers are a top flight crew. They’re friendly and sympathetic. One of them promptly produces a first aid kit, and uses fresh saline caps and clean wipes to wash my fresh, pebbled grazes before competently dressing them. Months and months later, long after I’ve reported the incident to Auckland Transport, someone whose job it is to ring me up, does so. He tells me he was a cyclist himself, once. But no more, since an accident with a car caused him to break his back.
The only single thing these incidents have in common, besides me, is that they would all have been prevented by a separated cycle lane. I suppose we could also say, well, if Freddy, and the Ice Queen, and the kids on the tram track had their basic shit together, then that might also have made my day a little safer, too. But we forgive them, for – being human – they know now what they do. And, after we’ve forgiven them, we separate ourselves from them, with a nice and aesthetically pleasing strip of concrete blocks, demarking a safe and functional cycle lane.
The idea that someone is occupying the cycle lane currently under construction in the remote hamlet of Grey Lynn, on the basis that it could have been consulted better, is a travesty on the long, proud and progressive history of the very word “occupy”.
Update: WordPress formatting has gone to shit.

7 sleeps till Going West

I’ve gone a bit literary in recent years. As well as biting off a slightly-larger-than-I-can-eat biographical project (on which more later), I’ve got a teaching gig with the creative writing team at Manukau Institute of Technology, and I’ve also found myself on the board of the Going West Festival.

Why? After 30 odd years as a theatre director, dramaturge, critic, researcher, content strategist and producer, it eventually dawned on me that all I really like doing – all I’ve ever really done – is tell stories. So, now I’m doing as much as I can.

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Going West is going strong. The bad news is that we’ve got a change in venue this year. The Titirangi War Memorial Hall had a bad fire a couple of weeks ago, so this year we’re in the old Waitakere Council Building in Henderson.

While it’s no longer in my neighbourhood (I love strolling up the road to the festival, taking in a show at Te Uru gallery sometimes on the way); the Henderson venue has the distinct advantage of being built on a train station, so it’s super easy to get to. And since the inaugural festival was founded by Murray Gray on a train with a reading by Maurice Gee, that seems fairly ideal too.

The programme has highlights aplenty. On opening night of the Books and Writers’ Weekend, this Friday, I’m looking forward to Small Holes in the Silence, which is a range of New Zealand poetry read by Bill Manhire and accompanied by Norman Meehan, Hannah Griffin and Blair Latham. The same night has more poetry by Selina Tusitala Marsh and a lecture by the always-erudite economics journalist Rod Oram.

Elsewhere throughout the weekend you’ll find me in the room with Anne Salmond and Moana Maniopoto on New Zealand in and after 1840; Catherine Chidgey and Sue Orr on The Wish Child; Witi Ihimaera, Tina Makereti and Paula Morris on their anthology of indigenous writing; and Russell Brown and Colin Hogg on weed (the subject of Colin’s new book).

There is more to the festival beyond the weekend, though. The theatre programme alone is an entire festival in itself, including a night with Rawiri Paratene, a playwriting masterclass by Albert Belz, The Maori Sidesteps, and Kororareka by Paulo Rotondo and Red Leap Theatre, and miles more besides.

On Saturday Night I’ll be as close to the front as I can get at the Poetry Slam final. Here, spoken word artists slug it out for a cash prize. While some people find competition at odds with culture, I like this annual event. It’s all about courage and honesty and changing the world and I think putting money on the table sharpens all the contestants’ verbal blades.

There’s also a new event this year: a little cinema festival. Across 18, 19 and 20 September there’ll be a doco on Mansfield, another on Sargeson, a curated collection of cinepoetic shorts and also a screening of the much loved, highly awarded My Father’s Den, based on Maurice Gee’s third novel.

So, take a break from changing the government, get on a train and go west (preferably while reading Going West). And don’t forget to bring a bag for all the books you’ll want to get while you’re there.

Putting the civil into disobedience.

Metiria stated in Friday’s presser words to the effect that

We’ve tried everything. Bills. Debates. Research. Nothing works. I’d far rather people get angry about this, than not talk about it at all.”

So, that happened. My guess is that after umpteen years in opposition, she was simply looking at ways to change it up a bit. Sometimes you just have to roll the dice.

The ethical complaints are pretty much a non starter. Obviously, she was being dishonest with WINZ, and that’s not something to encourage. However, not all dishonesty is the same. For instance, does anyone now begrudge Ngati Whatua their ownership of the land around their Orakei marae? Does anyone think Mahatma Ghandi was wrong to make his own salt? Did Oscar Wilde really deserve being subject to forced labour?

Sometimes, the most profound civil disobedience is executed by people simply living their lives as best they can.

Meanwhile, over at Public Address, Craig Young has compiled a handy list of transgressions of currently sitting government ministers:

  • Richard Worth: allegations of sexual harrassment
  • David Garrett: past identity theft of dead infant
  • Aaron Gilmore: harrassment and intimidation of others
  • Claudette Hauiti: misuse of parliamentary charge card, claimed expenses after announcing departure from Parliament
  • Mike Sabin: alleged assault complaint
  • Pansy Wong: misused parliamentary travel perk after her husband conducted private business on a visit to China
  • Nick Smith: contempt of court (March 2004); defamation cases (1999,2005); ACC conflict of interest (2012)
  • Todd Barclay: employment dispute, clandestine recordings

Of course, two wrongs don’t make a right. But these are all of a wholly different order to Metiria’s transgressions. First, all these people were sitting, government MPs when they did their wrongdoing. Second, they all got busted in the act, caught in the full knowledge of what they were doing. Some of them are still in the job, and one of them is still the PM. If only progressive voters could be so lax in their moral standards!

The electoral issue is even less problematic. In fact, it’s not problematic at all. The commission appears to be more interested in getting people to enrol and vote once, than bothering too much about what electorate they vote in. It says (with my apologies, as I can’t provide the citation):

People have a wide range of living arrangements which may involve living in more than one place at various times.

It seems John Key himself was ignorant of this relaxed approach when, in 2004, he corrected his information on the electoral role to reflect where he lived (Parnell), rather than where he’d previously voted for himself (Helensville). This was the exact same thing as Metiria did, only she voted for another, and wasn’t an MP at the time.

So, Metiria rolled the dice. The dice that landed gave Labour a fabulously compassionate woman at the helm. She’s electable: good outcome. Even better, while her politics are currently a bit ambiguous, she’s clearly to the right of the Greens. I think that’s probably useful. Labour can chase disaffected National voters, and the Greens are there for disaffected Labour voters, many of whom suspect that “centre left” really means “new right”.

At times, I’ve argued for greater agility on the Greens’ political positioning. I’m over it, for now. Left of Labour is where they need to be.

I still maintain that those who wish to change the government ought to cast their party vote to the Greens. Jacinda will go to Parliament, because of her ranking and because of her electorate. Labour electorates will come back in force. And the more Green MPs that she has in coalition, the better – and more properly Labourish – she will be.

Metiria, there’s so much to discuss.

A lot of people who know I sometimes hang out with the Greens have expressed concern at Metiria’s story of historical welfare fraud. Among my predominantly  middle class, home owning, vocationally engaged and progressively voting friends, there is a palpable fear that she’s done the wrong thing. Personally, I disagree. I think she’s done something courageous, good and very, very helpful.


Most of the concern seems to be that she – and the Greens – will lose votes. My question is: which ones? The answer? All those welfare bagging scoundrels out there who’ll gleefully grab the stick she’s handed them and beat her with it. She’s given her enemies something to complain about. But obviously, her enemies don’t vote for her.

The most imperilled Green votes are probably from those who are a bit older and more socially conservative than the party itself: middle class people, maybe well over fifty, who had to think long and hard about defecting from Labour to support the Greens in the first place. I’m characterising good people who care a lot about honesty. They’ll be understandably spooked.

To anyone who’s thinking twice about their Green vote as a result of Metiria’s confession, I ask, what’s really changed? Metiria has clearly, emphatically and specifically pointed out some serious problems with the way New Zealand handles welfare. This is a vital discussion for anyone in New Zealand, and especially for anyone who wishes to change the government. The discussion starts with welfare and expands like oil on water to impact all the key portfolios such as tax, housing, education and health: all the stuff – good and bad – that rich folks have and poor folks don’t.

To remind us: benefits are too low. They need to enable life, not suffocate it. Abatement rates (which deduct benefits in ratio against other income) are miserably disincentivising. The way that WINZ handles (or doesn’t handle) their clients is typically bossy, often bullying, and nearly always unhelpful for either day to day practicalities or big picture stuff like housing, education, employment, and so on.

Within the DPB, the sole guardian benefit is deducted on the scantiest evidence of a relationship, including the fact that a parent has sex with someone else. I believe case workers have been known to inspect houses for signs of other gendered undies to ‘prove’ such cases. I don’t want that happening in my country, and not in the name of my government.

Above all else, Metiria has been honest with us, on two levels. One, she’s fessed up to something she’s done. That’s not only rare. It’s commendable. It’s one of the best things any person can ever do. Some forgiveness (said to be a divine act) is warranted, right there.

Two, she’s done so in a way that forces us to ask what our country should be: one that leaves its weakest lying in the gutter? Or one that respects and bestows mana on all its inhabitants: citizens, migrants, tourists, criminals, everyone.

Metiria has made much of the fact that what she did, she did out of need. While MSD or even the courts might overlook that factor, no morally intact person can.

Some have asked Metiria’s to compare her transgression to a business owner facing liquidation proceedings lying to get IRD off their back. Well, sure, that’d be bad, and so is the unreasonable hounding that IRD have been known to engage in from time to time. So if someone in Parliament has a personal story about that, don’t be a stranger.

I’ve been on the opposite side of the fence. I used to pay cash to a friend of mine to do a bit of cleaning. She’s a good sort: she works hard with her kids, and in her part time jobs, and – far more than she wants or should – in dealing with obdurate WINZ staff and draconian policies. Katie and I were both lucky to be in full time work so were happy to help out. I’m ashamed that we paid her what we could, not what she’s worth, and it’s not pleasant work. So the thought of her giving it back to the government seemed ludicrous then, and still does now.

And the abatement rates really can be punishing. It’s not uncommon in some situations for people who declare their part time work to end up with less than they had before they worked. It’s not possible for the WINZ bureaucrats to not know that’s happening. And it’s neither credible nor acceptable that they think it’s ok.

Although I don’t have time to link to it, there was a report published recently which held that if you measure poverty without taking the cost of housing into consideration, it has not grown significantly in recent years. But – surprise! – it has, if you do.

In particular, the very bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder has grown. That not only includes beneficiaries, it also includes homeless people who are cruelly disqualified by virtue of being too poor; and – increasingly – working people who (it is so terrible to say) simply can’t afford to live properly.

At least three working families in our decile 8 school have fled west Auckland in the last year, chasing cheaper housing in distant regions. Poverty is literally removing people from our community. I’m sad to see them go. So are our kids. Although for the families who leave, there’s palpable excitement at the thought of an extra few bucks awaiting them after the upheaval of shifting.

As for the impact of all this on your party vote: here is the bottom line. If you want to change the government, give your party vote to the Green Party. Why? Because if you want to change the government, you want the government to be Labour and Green. The Green Party will thrive or die – as it always has – on its party vote. Labour will get a big chunk of party vote, and a big chunk of electorate votes. At best, the Greens will get a single electorate MP. All the rest will be list MPs, sent to Parliament on the party vote.

So, it’s not only the Greens who need you party vote. It’s Labour, too. Unless, of course, you are drawn to the idea of a Labour government run by New Zealand First.

The other comment to make to those who fear she’s somehow done the wrong thing is this: while Metiria has caused doubt among some, she’s inspiring others. Like this.

There’s a lot more to come on this. Not the least of which will be the details of the investigation. In particular, there’ll be a lot about whatever figure WINZ decide she owes them.

Airport rail by when?

By Roger Leroux

Roger Leroux is a transport planner and modeller. He’s seen a fair few infrastructure decisions in his time and at close quarters, too. He reckons not all of them are very good, and that some are very bad, based on bad information and misguided intentions. He’s kindly offered me a few blogs about all this, starting with this one.

Roger writes under a pseudonym because – sad to say – he’s known clients give him the cold shoulder when his modelling doesn’t support institutionally desired solutions. For my part, I don’t always agree with him either. But – more importantly – I find him interesting, challenging and usually enlightening. So, enjoy, comment (here or the socials) and watch out for more. Cheers, James.

With an election less than three months away we probably shouldn’t be surprised by the press release issued by the Greens this week headlined “Greens to fast-track airport rail for the America’s Cup”. It promises rail to Auckland Airport by 2021. It could be one of many press releases issued by different politicians over the years if we substitute the words “rail” or “light rail” for other types of infrastructure, and swap the words “America’s Cup” for other major events. It also uses the words “national significance” and “transformative” which have been used by politicians and others promoting major infrastructure project over the years. As it offers no justification for these statements I think we can dismiss them as meaningless verbiage.

The first significant question is whether such a project could be completed by 2021. This seems unlikely as major projects of this sort usually take much longer than this to plan and build. Even if it could be done in this time frame would it be done properly and at reasonable cost? Major projects have long lives and rushing their completion for some short duration event is unwise.

The second significant question is whether this project is needed at the moment or in its current form. It does nothing for airport access from the east and south of the city – are residents from these areas only going to have the limited bus service that is provided at the moment? Rail links to airports in Brisbane and Sydney after opening failed to meet their patronage forecasts.


Aussie Rail

From MacGregor & Raymond, conference paper, available here.

This shouldn’t be a surprise – rail projects are extremely expensive and the economic case for them is often weak. Once a project gets political backing the people doing the demand forecasts feel a need to please their political (pay)masters and tend to adopt more optimistic assumptions to improve the project’s economics. This and the other factors mentioned above is what makes press releases of this sort so dangerous – they inhibit sensible making.